Sermon Notes 20/10/12 - Noach / Tefillah 2

תפלה: Standing before God, the Quill of the Soul and Participation

In last week’s instalment, I posed a challenge from Rabbi J.B. Soloveitchik:

1) When we go to Shul or pray at home, is our goal to daven or to have davened?

We ought to consider whether we view prayer as something to get out of the way – simply to meet an obligation, to be, as they say ‘yotze’, or if the process of prayer itself is a meaningful experience.  My favourite passage in Rabbi Soloveitchik’s ‘The Lonely Man of Faith’ reads:

Prayer is basically an awareness of man finding himself in the presence of and addressing himself to his Maker, and to pray has one connotation only: to stand before God. To be sure, this awareness has been objectified and crystallized in standardized, definitive texts whose recitation is obligatory. The total faith commitment tends always to transcend the frontiers of fleeting, amorphous subjectivity and to venture into the outside world of the well-formed, objective gesture. However, no matter how important this tendency on the part of the faith commitment is—and it is of enormous significance in the Halakhah which constantly demands from man that he translate his inner life into external facticity—it remains unalterably true that the very essence of prayer is the covenantal experience of being together with and talking to God and that the concrete performance such as the recitation of texts represents the technique of implementation of prayer and not prayer itself.

I particularly like the last line of this excerpt, which insists that our services are a means to prayer, but not prayer itself.  Clearly, for Rabbi Soloveitchik, prayer is about the encounter with the divine, the moment of communion, the privilege of standing before God, something every human being should crave – it is not so much about outcome, but process.

2) Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, the first Rebbe of Lubavitch is quoted as saying:

הלשון היא קולמוס הלב והניגון הוא קולמוס הנפש

The tongue is the quill of the heart and music is the quill of the soul

Our prayer experience must be at once personal, yet shared and combine the ‘two quills’ – the tongue and the heart, allowing us to articulate our feelings, needs, fears and aspirations within the context of engaging, participatory, communal services.  Each of us is responsible for the atmosphere in our Shul, ensuring that it is welcoming, spiritual and purposeful.  As Professor A.J. Heschel remarks:

Ours is a great responsibility.  We demand that people come to worship instead of playing golf, or making money, or going on a picnic.  Why?  Don’t we mislead them?  People take their precious time off to attend service.  Some even arrive with profound expectations.  But what do they get?  What do they receive? (Man’s Quest for God, p. 51)

What we will ensure those attending receive is an opportunity to sing along in a joint, yet personal experience.  There is room in our community for different styles of davenning – from the traditional to the modern, but all Baaley Tefillah must bear in mind that fostering communal participation, principally singing, is vital.  This way, we can all enjoy a varied, unifying experience that leaves us moved and, hopefully, meets our ‘profound expectations’.

3) Turning to more prosaic matters, we will experiment with commencing the Shabbat morning service at 9.30am, with a slightly earlier start on special or longer services; the goal is to finish regularly no later than 11.40am.  It’s important that we don’t convey the idea that Shul and Shabbat are synonymous – even during the winter there must be time to enjoy Shabbat lunch and spend some time with family or friends.  Shul is a central and vital part of the Shabbat experience, but there is more to Shabbat than attending a service.

4) Finally, a challenge from the Rokeach (Eli’ezer of Worms, d. 1238).  He is supposed to have said that the most difficult daily challenge within a daily religious life is to pray with proper intention.  How do we relate to this?

Sermon Notes 13/10/12 - BeReishit / Tefillah 1

תפלה: Meaning, Experience and a Challenge

Over the coming weeks, our community will be in a transitional phase as we begin to recreate our ‘prayer space’ in the redeveloping building.  It’s clearly really important that we do this in a way that all of us can really enjoy the new space and so I’ve decided to devote this and the next few Shabbat-morning sermons to considering our prayer experience and what our expectations can and must be of it.  I plan to cajole, reprioritise and challenge to ensure we get this right, but this week, some basics.

1) What is the meaning of תפלה – the word most commonly used for prayer?

It is not request – that is בקשה, nor praise – that is שבח, nor thanks – that is הודאה, nor blessing – that is ברכה, nor supplication – that is תחינה.

תפלה is none of these and all of them.  Interestingly, the verb associated with תפלה is להתפלל, which is a reflexive form of the word פלל, meaning ‘judge’.  That renders תפלה as a process of self-judgement, or, perhaps, self-reflection.  In this vein, Rabbi Dr. Joseph Breuer, in his introduction to ‘The Hirsch Siddur’ notes that תפלה is related to הלל – to radiate or reflect rays, meaning that ‘while God is not visible to us, we perceive the radiations of His Omnipotence in the infinite evidences of wonder which permit us to find God’.  ‘Prayer’ – our תפלה – must enable us to reflect on our lives, their purpose and our relationship with God.  Rabbi Breuer continues:

תפלה requires that we imbue ourselves ever anew with the great truth and demands which must place their stamp upon our Jewish existence and consciousness.

In other words, תפלה must provide us with Jewish direction, peace of mind and renewed God-consciousness.

2) The Talmud articulates three early perceptions of prayer based on the experience of the Avot:

Not like Avraham, who saw the focus of prayer (the site of the future Temple) as a mountain, nor like Yitzchak, who saw it as a field, but like Ya’akov, who saw it as a house. (TB Pesachim 88a, paraphrased)

We should not view תפלה and connection with the divine as an insurmountable climb (Avraham’s mountain), nor as a straightforward, equally-accessible experience (Yitzchak’s field), but as a house that can and must incorporate a range of needs, feelings and complexities.

3) Finally, a challenge from Rabbi J.B. Soloveitchik, who asked a question I often ask myself and I urge you to ask yourselves:

When we go to Shul or pray at home, is our goal to daven, or to have davened?  Think about it.

Sermon Notes 22/09/12 - VaYelech & Shabbat Shuvah

Torah as Poetry: Yom Kippur and the Song of the Soul

One of my favourite verses appears in this parashah:

And now – write this poem for yourselves and teach it to the Children of Israel: place it in their mouths, so that this poem will be for Me as testimony for the Children of Israel. (Devarim 31:19)

What is this 'poem'?  In context, it is clearly a reference to the epic song of Ha’azinu, which begins a few verses later.  In powerful biblical poetry, Ha’azinu offers a sweeping view of Jewish history, how God will always stand with us despite our many failures and a glimpse of the magnificent future that awaits us and our Land – it encapsulates the whole of Jewish reality and its aspirations.  In some Sefardi communities, children would be taught to memorise Ha’azinu, so that it will always be ‘placed in their mouths’.

Yet the rabbis also derive from this verse the last (613th) mitzvah of the Torah – to write a complete Sefer Torah (see Rambam Laws of Sefer Torah 7:1).  But if the Torah means to instruct us to write the Torah, why not say so explicitly?

I believe that the answer lies in a simple but powerful equation, that of the Torah with poetry – ‘this poem’ is the Torah, for the Torah is the song of the Jewish people.  It is not merely a code of law, nor even the record of the transformation of a remarkable family into an extraordinary people, but the song of our nation.

The words of one of the greatest Jewish poets come to mind.  Yearning for the Holy Temple, Rabbi Yehudah HaLevi sings:

I am a harp for your songs… (Kinnot: Tzion, HaLo Tishali)

As Yom Kippur approaches, it’s time to reconsider the way we think of our relationship with the Torah itself, the lifeblood of our people.  Does it make us sing?  Does it make every fibre of our being reverberate with spirituality and yearning for a more godly world?  If the answer is not yet, then make this Yom Kippur the perfect time for the Torah to play the sweet music of our souls.

Belovski in Manhattan

Congregation Ramath Orah Parashat Ki Teitzei

I am delighted to announce that I will be Scholar in Residence at Ramath Orah in Manhattan for Shabbat 31st August – 1st September.  Themes and times to be announced.

**Update**

Friday Night

Short Devar Torah on the Parashah

Shabbat Morning after Musaf

Recovering a Censored Letter: Rabbinic Responses to the Balfour Declaration

Seudah Shelishit after Minchah

Mesorah and Scientic Discovery: The Battle over Techelet

LSJS Book Group - Belovski on Frankenstein

Belovski on Frankenstein 19/07/12 - Trailer

On Thursday 19th July, I’ll be down at the LSJS library from 8.00 – 9.30pm discussing Mary Shelley’s horror story Frankenstein.

We will look at its classic ideas, but also at existential themes such as loneliness and companionship, which the book addresses in powerful ways.  To complement our discussion, I will have some thought-provoking quotes from Epicurus and the Talmud on hand.

Do join me for what I hope will be a memorable evening.  Booking details on the LSJS website here, or email to Malka to flag your intention to come along.

If you haven’t read Frankenstein, then you must – in fact, I will assume if you’re coming along or listening later online that you have.  Either buy a cheap copy or download it for free from here.

Sermon Notes 07/07/12 - Balak

When Less is More

If you'd wanted to hear my sermon, you'd have come to Shul, but...

Actually, I didn't give a sermon this week as my community had the privilege of hosting Professor Elliott Malamet from Toronto, who delivered three fascinating and thought-provoking talks - see here for details.

Yet the story of Bilam's donkey, which appears in this week's Torah reading, offers a further opportunity to explore the Rambam's approach to certain challenging biblical texts.

While it is almost universally assumed that the narrative describes an actual, physical event, the Rambam (Maimonides) asserts that it was a prophetic vision - i.e. it happened only in Bilam's mind but was not observable by an outsider. As he explains:

The entire [episode] of Bilaam's journey and the words of the donkey - all were a prophetic vision. (Moreh Nevochim 2:42)

Indeed, for the Rambam, 'everywhere that the appearance or speech of an angel is mentioned, it is always a prophetic vision of dream, whether this is explicitly mentioned or not... Know this and understand it extremely well'. (ibid.)

So, frustratingly for literalists, the Rambam contends that there wasn't a talking donkey in any 'real' sense. However, this appears to be contradicted by an explicit Mishnah, which sites the 'mouth of the donkey' within a group of specially-created items:

Ten things were created at twilight on the [first] Friday evening... the mouth of the donkey.. (Mishnah, Avot 5:6)

Since the other items in the list - including the staff of Moshe, the manna and tablets of the covenant - were clearly real, physical entities, this strongly suggest that the 'mouth of the donkey' - surely a euphemism for it actually speaking - was also 'real'.

The Chief Rabbi once suggested to me that the Rambam meant that Bilam's journey actually took place; when Bilam hit the donkey, he heard its braying as human speech. It may be that the capacity for this to happen at the right moment in history was created on the first Friday afternoon in history, allowing the Rambam's non-literalist approach to square with the Mishnah.

Rambam's certainty that human beings cannot detect angels, and consequently, the 'talking donkey' must have been a vision, is consonant with his insistence that nothing in existence other than God is inherently holy. It also fits with what I would term his 'rational minimalism', the contention that God is as economic as possible when He must interfere with the natural running of the world, something I've mentioned before here. In practice, this means that God uses the minimum intervention to achieve his desired outcome - in this case, since a vision could suffice to rebuke Bilam and demonstrate that he was merely a pawn in the hand of the divine, no more miraculous event needed, or indeed, could have, occurred.

This approach remains unpopular in a Jewish world that often assumes that 'more is more' both in practice and theory. I've noticed that many speakers (and, it would seem, their audiences), assume that if two stories can illustrate a point then eight must do so better. From this perspective, when dealing with theological matters, the more overt the divine intervention, the greater the God.

The Rambam's approach challenges the validity of this view. For him, only a God who can change the course of history with the slightest intervention is truly omnipotent - 'less is more'.

Sermon Notes - Shavuot 2012

Revelation, Multiplicity and Receiving the Torah

If you’d wanted to hear my sermon, you’d have come to Shul, but...

Shavuot is light on ritual but affords a weighty unique opportunity in our annual festival cycle to consider how a modern community understands its relationship with the Torah and Judaism itself.

The Talmud[1] mentions a perplexing aspect of the Torah system – the existence within it of conflicting views on almost every topic.  How, asks Rebbi Ela’zar ben Azariah, can a single Torah include ‘those who forbid, those who permit, those who invalidate and those who sanction’?  This question uncannily presages a modern frustration with Judaism – why can’t the rabbis agree with each other?  Rebbi El’azar offers a fascinating allegorical response – ‘make your ear into a funnel and acquire an understanding heart for yourself’[2] to accept what may be the most difficult facet of the Torah – its multiplicity.  A full and sophisticated understanding of revelation involves accepting that divergent, even conflicting, views can co-exist within a single revelation.

Rabbi Menachem Mendel Morgenstern, the Kotzker Rebbe, asks why the festival liturgy describes Shavuot as the time of the ‘giving of our Torah’ rather than the time of the ‘receiving of our Torah’.  He answers that only the giving is universal, hence its inclusion in a communal prayer; the receiving of the Torah, however, is an individual experience – the divine perceived through the lens of one’s own vision and perspective.  And while, of course, the Torah is not infinitely elastic, the voice of God is certainly heard differently by each of us.  It is only this that enables members of a modern and diverse community to be transformed by an ancient revelation, turning the ordinary into the extraordinary, the mundane into the inspirational.

Professor A.J. Heschel notes that ‘A Jew without the Torah is obsolete’.[3]  It is neither synagogue attendance nor even observance which guarantee that our Jewish lives remain vibrant and future-proof, but Torah.  Yet Heschel points out that revelation must also instil ‘a new creative moment into the course of natural events’.[4]  Shavuot is not just the anniversary of Sinai; it is also the time of year at which we should affirm our belief that only an authentic, multi-chromatic Torah will be relevant for those grappling with the voice of the divine.

Respect for a range of equally authentic positions lies at the core of our approach to Judaism.  When the Talmud allegorises the ultimate reward of the righteous, it describes a ‘dance circle’ in the Garden of Eden: God ‘sits’ in the centre while the righteous dance around Him ‘pointing’ in His direction.[5]  A circle is a collection of points equidistant from a single locus; each dancer occupies a different position from the others, but all are equidistant from God.  The righteous perceive God at close quarters, while simultaneously authenticating the approaches of others.  And, of course, the righteous are not stationary – instead, they move around the circle, enjoying not just their own view of the divine, experiencing and celebrating the perspectives of each of the other dancers.



[1] TB Chagigah 3b

[2] Ibid.

[3] A Preface to the Understanding of Revelation

[4] The Moment at Sinai

[5] TB Ta’anit 31a